Aparna Karthikeyan visits the Kapaleeshwarar temple as it opens its doors to devotees waiting for a first glimpse

The gopuram is enveloped in velvety darkness. A priest, seated in a pool of yellow streetlight, is clad in a faded orange dhoti, his forehead, chest and arms thickly smeared with viboothi. He smiles and indentifies himself as Mani mama. It's 4.40 am on a pleasant February morning. Mylapore is practically deserted, except for the homeless, sheltering under the stars. As I wait with Mani mama, a lady in a flowery blue saree, carrying a bucket and broomstick, walks towards the temple. With a few brisk strokes, she clears the dust from the gopura-vaasal; above our heads, the 120-feet tall gopuram bristles with sculptures whose vivid colours strain to shine in the pale moonlight.

Behind her back, a pi-dog sneaks a long drink from the bucket. In the ten minutes it takes her to draw a kolam and outline it with brick-red kaavi, more people have gathered around us. Walkers and cyclists stop, remove their slippers, bow their heads and bring their palms together in salutation before they go on their way. A pooja-articles shop opposite the temple opens and the harsh white light picks out gaudily packaged incense sticks, camphor sachets and marigold garlands. An old man hurries across and makes the first purchase: a shiny yellow viboothi packet for ten rupees.

The madapalli key

Bells clang from deep inside the temple and shatter the stillness. It's now nearly 5 a.m. and Mani mama walks purposefully towards the front door, cradling a bunch of little keys. I ask him, hesitantly, if those titchy keys will actually open the massive door. “This is the madapalli key; the temple is opened by guards from inside ma,” he says with a smile. “It's for security reasons — there is the hundial, right?” The regulars — they clearly know the drill — are now standing, shoulders pressed against the green-and-yellow door. A minute later, the door opens a crack, and the devotees help push it wide open. Several chant “Hara hara Mahadeva” as they walk in, only to be swallowed by the enormous, empty courtyard.

By the entrance, three small shrines glow against the inky-blue pre-dawn sky. Their freshly lit oil-lamps throw long, quivering shadows. I follow the crowd towards the sanctum sanctorum. By the dwajasthambam, a couple of men fan hot coals on which they drop pungent sambrani powder. Through the thick, fragrant haze, we watch more devotees flock inside, this time by the modest west gopuram, beside the temple tank.

The impressively big bunch of keys (for the main shrines) arrives with the head priest at 5.30 a.m. The guard takes over, and opens the door to the Karpagambal sannadhi and later Easwaran's, to loud cries of “Hara Hara Mahadeva”. It's warm near the sanctum sanctorum; people press into each other to get a good view of the palliyarai poojai.

Gho poojai

A young devotee breaks into song to awaken the Lord. His melodious voice pours over the gods — and the rest of us — like honey. After this intimate and moving ceremony, we move outside for the gho poojai. This is a slightly more rambunctious affair, the cow waving her head, wetting the floor copiously, while the head priest anoints her with sandalwood paste and kumkum. A brass plate with rice, jaggery and bananas is presented to the cow and calf; the calf ignores it and darts between its mother's legs for a quick suckle, but the cow polishes the plate clean with her rough, muscular tongue.

Pressing their fingers to the cow's back and touching their eyes, the devotees troop back for the procession of Shivan's paadham from the Karpagambal (where it is symbolically kept every night) to the Easwaran sannadhi. The silver palanquin makes its stately way around the dark praharams, preceded by a drummer. The procession is lit beautifully by a lone thee pandham; and when it emerges from the clouds of sambrani, it sends a shiver down the spine.

Its 6.30 a.m. when I leave after a darshan of Karpagambal and Kapaleeshwarar, clutching the garland and bananas that Mani mama hands me as prasadam. The temple is now bustling with devotees briskly circling every shrine; some are seated, reading the Thiruvaachagam, others meditate in silence. The soaring gopuram is alive with birds; pigeons and crows take off from among the gods like wisps of grey-black cloud. Outside the temple, little shops are coming to life; tables are readied with flowers and fruit, each display a work of art. The sun has begun to poke its orange head over a tumble of ancient and modern rooftops. An old man is busy drawing a neat pulli kolam in front of his vegetable shop; the South Mada street market rises over yesterday's graveyard of rotten carrots and squashed tomatoes. I turn away from the unsavoury mess, into the busy R.K. Mutt road. Across the temple tank, the temple stands silhouetted against the rising sun, its gopuram reflected in the rippling theppakulam . The sky is stained rose-red, rays of golden sunshine spill out from beneath the clouds, painting a halo around the temple. If God is in the details, I decide, He is most definitely here.

(Introducing a fortnightly column that captures the moods of the city)

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Aparna KarthikeyanJune 28, 2012